Winning! An alternative to “most points”

It’s been a while, Internet. Life has been hectic, and playing few games meant I thought about design less. But now that life is calming down some, and that I’m gaming a lot…

So to get back into writing, I’ve decided to dig into my notebook and look at the SISIGIP section (Stuff I’d Steal In Games I Play): every time I play a new game, I write down one small mechanism that inspires me. It’s kind of like Jamey Stegmaier’s “My Favourite Mechanism in…” series, but I’m focusing more on small pieces rather than the main selling point, and thinking more about where it could fit in a game, or how it could be used differently.

Today, I’m starting the SISIGIP series by talking about Winning conditions: after a game is over, how do you know who won it? As a Euro gamer, I play a lot of Most-VPs-Wins games, but I’m starting to sway more and more towards games which avoid the end game accounting associated with those.

There are a lot of different ways to define victory conditions, but a lot of better writers have tackled those questions before: my first draft of this article was basically repeating Alex Harkey’s Games Precipice article about “Most, First, Last” (link). To recap, the article presents three types of victory conditions: Most (most point-based games), First (race games, but also mission-based), and Last (survival games). More interestingly, they then talk about games with multiple victory conditions, like how in King of Tokyo, you can either be the first to 20 points, or the last monster standing, or in 7 Wonders Duel, which is a most VP game, except for two instant-win conditions if you can manage to complete them (which are, in a way, a mix of first and last, but the line is blurry in a 2-player game).

But in all of these cases, the examples were about multiple, unrelated winning conditions, divided by OR: get to 20 points OR be the last standing; have 5 Sciences, OR reach your opponent’s city, OR have the most points.

Spirit Island‘s Fear System

When I played Spirit Island recently, the Fear system jumped out to me as such a rich victory condition. If you don’t know the game, it is a coop game where you play as Spirits defending an island against colonists laying claim over your land. If you break it down to a very deep, core level, it follows the Pandemic-frame: you must control the unending threat of colonists (playing the role of disease cubes) while making progress towards your goal by accumulating Fear (playing the role of cures). However, how those two aspects translate to the winning condition is very different.

In Pandemic, winning is straightforward: “Find 4 Cures before you lose”. The cubes affect the losing, but not the winning.

In Spirit Island, the winning condition starts as “Get rid of all Colonists”. Every time you get 4 Fear, you gain a small bonus event card; after the third (therefore, after 12 Fear), the win condition becomes one step easier. First, it allows you to ignore the least powerful type of Colonists, and becomes “Get rid of all Towns and Cities”, and then after another 12 Fear, “Get rid of all Cities”. Then, if you gain another 12 Fear, you just immediately win, regardless of board state, just like with 4 Cures in Pandemic.

It would be like if Pandemic‘s winning condition started off as “Win if there are no disease cube”, and after the first Cure, became “Win if there are no cities with 2 or 3 cubes”, then “Win if there are no cities with 3 cubes” after the second, and then “Win if there is no more than one city with 3 cubes”. Then, on the fourth Cure, you win, like in the current game.

What it does well

In Pandemic, you either play defensively by taking cubes away, or offensively by working towards the cures. Mostly, you try to play as offensively as you can, switching to defense when it’s required, because you’re still working against a ticking clock. The puzzle of the game comes in making those switches as seamless as possible: “if I go there to cure cubes, I can also give you this card”. If you play too defensively, you lose: you must take action.

In Spirit Island, you can technically win by killing all Colonists and staying on the first victory condition, or you can win without killing a Colonist, by moving them around or defending against their effects, and by producing 36 Fear before you lose. In reality, most games will be a mix of the two, but it makes “playing defensively” viable.

What makes the Fear System work so well, too, is how different the two axes feel. Gaining Fear is often a thing of manipulation, with a lot of fear-generating effects having “if” or “for each” clauses, and you must still find a way to survive the Colonists’ attacks. On the other hand, Fear gained is never lost. Getting rid of Colonists, however, is a much more direct thing, requiring both frontal assaults by the Spirits and by the island’s natives, the Dahan. They are their own form of defense, but any progress is temporary: more Colonists will come next turn, and the one after. When it comes to the winning condition, Fear is a one-way track, but Colonists are a snapshot: you can rid the board of all Towns and Settlers for a push to victory, but if you were to keep on playing, more would come.

By comparison, Rajas of the Ganges is a popular competitive game with a similar system: there are score tracks, one tracking your money, and one your Fame, and they go in opposite directions. If your markers ever reach one another, you win. In theory, it is a very similar system to Spirit Island’s: you could say that gaining money lowers your victory threshold, or vice versa. However, gaining Fame and gaining Money feel very similar, despite being gained from different systems. If the game had been created with only one point-type, and a single-threshold, the gameplay would not have changed much, I think.

How would I use it?

The Fear system has inspired two mechanisms for me, one for my Coop game SuPR, and one for a competitive game that’s still just scribbles in my notebook.

The first thing that came to mind is “can we play with the number of Fear needed to advance?” That could add one more dimension to play with and link abilities to, but also a very interesting timing element: Fear production is more effective when the threshold is low, so you must strike when the iron is hot!

In SuPR, players are a PR firm working for a Superhero, trying to get them to be liked by the general public. Where in Spirit Island you gain Fear and defeat Colonists, in SuPR you gain Reputation and defeat Supervillains. To me, the Fear mechanism was an obvious move, and a mechanism I wanted to work with. Interestingly, playing with the threshold for advancement had a great mechanical implication: the more dire the situation was, the more heroic your actions were! Mechanically, every neighbourhood’s Hope represented both its “health points”, and how much Heroism you needed to gain Reputation. This added an interesting layer of strategy: how far will you let things slip before you go in to save the day? It added a cynical aspect to the theme, too, which I loved to play with.

In the competitive space, I like games without point systems, which feel a lot more dramatic than the accounting session at the end of my favourite games. Games where you can just reach a certain situation, and WIN. However, more often than not, when I try to design those, they end up with a Munchkin effect: it’s not about being able to Win, but about being able to Win WHEN NO ONE CAN BLOCK YOU, which I think only works in a 2-player game.

However, my scribble concept went to a game about politicians and lobbyists. Every player is a politician, with some key lobbies supporting them. You start the game with, say, 6 cards dictating a certain board state: one says that the education budget must be over 10, another that the tax rate must be under 5. But, of course, both are related, and lowering the tax rate also lowers the education budget. And one of your opponent is pushing for the budget to go to infrastructure. If, at any point during the game, all 10 of your cards are completed, like the victory condition in Spirit Island, you win. Also, throughout the game, certain events and actions lead to Popularity Boosts. When you gain a Popularity Boost, you get to discard one of your Objective cards: now, you only need 5 objectives to be true, then 4, then 3. Like in Spirit Island, you could win through sheer Popularity, but odds are it will be a mix of the two.

Quickly, you’ll get an idea of what other players are pushing, and who is pushing against you. However, the game is not about waiting for others to be out of sticks to put in your wheels, but to, over time, lower your threshold so that you can hit at the right time.

Conclusion

I think there’s a lot that can be done to make the process of determining a winner more dynamic, without losing the granularity and feeling of progress of victory points. Spirit Island’s Fear system is only one of them. What other games explore that space in dramatic, interesting ways? Have you explored that in your own designs?

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